OP1/Insert Song: “Yuki ni Saku Hana (雪に咲く花)” by Maria Akizuki (Kana Hanazawa)
It’s not like SSY is an especially uplifting show to begin with, but there’s undeniably something sort of depressing in watching yet another brilliant, thoughtful, beautiful and dark anime utterly tank commercially. I suppose it can be argued that it doesn’t really matter as long as the studios keep making them now and again, it’s the quality that should be celebrated for its own sake. But that nagging voice inside my head tells me that sooner or later they will stop making shows like Shin Sekai Yori, and Seirei no Moribito. Maybe big studios with lots of hits like Production I.G. and A-1 Pictures can afford to put out shows like this as a kind of “loss leader”, like the prestige titles big publishers used to release knowing someone would buy them because it made them look serious about literature. But what if one day someone just says, “Fuck it – we can do two one-cour Girls@School shows for half the cost of this beast. Does anyone really care what a few fringe viewers think?”
If there were any justice this series would get the recognition it deserves, because it’s consistently a powerful, intelligent and visually and aurally beautiful series with the narrative drive of a bullet train. No two episodes are alike – SSY continues to find new ways to tell its story and reveal its characters, always in entertaining fashion, never losing its superb sense of pacing. The show has elements of both the mystery and the tragedy about it, but the latter has been winning out lately – and it ties in with the sense that it’s a story from a real world that’s being retold for out benefit, not one that’s being made up as it goes along. I’m not sure where things are going to land when it’s all said and done, but it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s going to be a heartbreaker.
I had my doubts about this episode after the first few minutes. It seemed an odd choice to finally use an OP this far into the series, and to spend so much time in a reminiscence about Maria and Saki’s childhood playing out over Maria reading the farewell letter she’s left for Saki. But like almost all the choices this show has made, it was borne out as a wise one – in the end, Maria’s letter was both incredibly powerful in its own right and another brilliant and innovative way of working exposition seamlessly into the plot. Maria said in her letter what so many viewers (and this blogger) have been saying for weeks – that this society,as constructed, isn’t worth saving. It was a ringing condemnation: she compares the children of the village to pottery, waiting to be smashed at the sign of the slightest defect. Even more tellingly, to eggs awaiting hatching, as the adults watch in terror, knowing that one egg in a million will become a demon, rather than an angel.
In summation, Maria says this: “Our village is twisted.” And asks what’s the ultimate question after 16 brilliant episodes: “Can a village that murders its children to preserve order really be considered a normal human society?” That these devastating truths should come from Maria is seemingly ironic, based on what’s been foreshadowed – but the larger point remains unchanged. Maria boils it all down to the adults being terrified of the children, and even makes the salient (arguably too much so for a girl her age in her circumstances, if I’m to be honest) point that this is a fundamental human reaction, throughout history. Do the adults have good reason to be afraid, given what they know of human history? No doubt – but that’s not the main issue. I think for me, it boils down to this: no society can maintain this sort of approach towards its children without becoming warped and twisted in the process. You might debate whether a society that declares all its children disposable until age 17 might be justified if that’s the only way to perpetuate itself – I would argue no, for the record – but to become the sort of adults that would be willing to do so would require a fundamental loss of humanity in the process.
That Maria’s words are heard as we watch scenes of the five Class 1 children in all their innocence, playing in a natural world that retains all its beauty, makes them that much more heartbreaking. Whatever is to become of Maria in the future, it’s really striking just how selfless this act of hers was. I’ve been unsure of Maria in the past, but to leave behind the life she knows and the person she considers her true love in order to stay by Mamoru’s side is an act of genuine compassion. Maria loves Mamoru, don’t get me wrong – I think all these kids love each other in a very profound way – but Saki is the one Maria is in love with. There’s no doubt that her growing conviction that the village was rotten beyond redemption had a lot to do with her decision too, but it would still have been far easier to stay and make the best of it. It seems clear that Maria is to be a tool of the increasingly ambitious and confrontational Queerats in a coming war against humanity – either herself or in the person of the child she bears with Mamoru – and that will be just another tragedy to add to the growing list of them in Shin Sekai Yori.
What’s truly heartbreaking is that we can see in the relationships of the five children that genuine human love and compassion is still possible. It’s been obvious in the romantic love of Maria and Saki, and both Saki and Satoru and Shun – but it’s just as much so in the deep and powerful familial love they all share. Watching Satoru and Saki is especially poignant, as they’ve shared so much over the course of the series – they’ve never been in love with each other, but they’re incredibly close, and they both loved the same boy. Even as they finally make love in their tiny Kamakura, so long after their first near-encounter, it comes as Saki is realizing just how alone in the world she is – Satoru is the only one of their precious group she has left. Even Shun’s name and face are denied her, and this is really the ultimate violation on the part of the adults – after murdering a child they deny their friends even the precious gift of their memories.
Just how Shun – faceless and in a nightmare of a surreal landscape – is able to reach out to Saki from beyond the grave isn’t entirely clear. Whether his cantus allows him to retain some spiritual form or her love for him was so strong that Saki has simply retained a part of him in her mind, his message is clear – don’t help Maria and Mamoru. Maria has to die. It’s certainly the last thing Saki wants to hear – or believe – and it makes me believe that Shun is indeed a product of her subconscious, urging her to face the ugly reality she would rather avoid. In this terrible world there are seemingly never any good choices, and children are not just murdered by their parents but forced to confront the sort of truth that Saki now faces. It’s explicit in Saki’s narration that she and Satoru have been tools of Squealer all along (his comment that Queerat skeletons are hard to distinguish from human ones only makes me more convinced of the Queerats’ true evolutionary history), made blind by their desperation to find their friends – and indeed, the next episode is going to give us the longest timeskip yet. It’s clear that the 26 year-old Saki and Satoru are going to be confronting a very different world than the one their 14 year-old selves inhabit, but I see no reason to think it will be any less of a tragic and bereft place.